Jitterbug Waltz: A Critical Analysis of Covers

“Jitterbug Waltz” is a tune from Fats Waller written (I am told by wikipedia) in 1942 and released as a 78 rpm single. On that single, Waller opens the tune by playing the melody on a Hammond organ with guitar accompaniment. It’s a catchy, descending melody on the organ. After playing the descending line twice, there’s a little turnaround phrase starting at about 0:30. Just before 1:00, a clarinet joins to play through the head again along with the organ and guitar, and then a bit after 1:30, a full horn section plays the melody along with Waller’s organ for a bigger sound. The horn punctuations are nice here, with Waller adding some nice, watery-sounding organ underneath. It’s a great, catchy tune. Not very much improvisation on this version, as they were limited by the length of a 78 rpm record. The tune has served as a platform for future improvisers, though, and has taken on lots of new forms since 1942.

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I’ll start with a version from Art Tatum. Tatum recorded “Jitterbug Waltz” a number of times, but this particular version is from 1953, eleven years after the tune was first released by Waller. Tatum starts this solo piano version with some big chords before moving into the descending melody line, which he ornaments with an ascending line in his left hand. Wow, this playing is just beautiful, incredibly musical, if that makes sense. In Tatum’s hands, some of this reminds me of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” (some of the lines Tatum plays around 2:00 in particular). When he opens this up starting around 2:40 or so, Tatum throws off these mind-blowing virtuosic runs in between the melody phrases. He could do whatever he wanted. This version is looser than Waller’s original version of the tune, and just very different – Tatum made this tune his own.

Moving forward another eleven years, the Charles Mingus Sextet took on “Jitterbug Waltz,” recently released on the Cornell 1964 live concert album. Mingus on bass is joined by Eric Dolphy on flute, Clifford Jordan on sax, Jaki Byard on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums. Here, “Jitterbug Waltz” is used as a platform for some serious improvisation. This version starts with a brief introduction from Mingus and Byard before Dolphy’s flute comes in to play the melody. This all sounds pretty stately, especially when Dolphy and Byard double up the melody line on flute and piano. Just before 1:00, Jordan’s sax joins in and the drums pick up their intensity somewhat. Around 1:45, this opens up for a solo from Dolphy on flute. He is backed by a very strong bassline from Mingus and comes up with some great melodies during this solo that someone (Mingus?) vocally agrees with… Shortly before 3:00, Richmond drops in some big kick drums and these continue for the rest of Dolphy’s solo on this fairly bass-heavy recording. This solo ends just after 4:00 with a flourish, leading to a piano solo from Jaki Byard. Byard sticks fairly close to the tune’s melody, taking an approach that sounds very influenced by Tatum at first. Shortly before 5:00, Byard starts playing some big chords and then returns to the song’s melody. Around 5:45, Jordan takes a sax solo. It’s a great, melodic, and relaxed sax solo in its phrasing. Great without being flashy. Shortly after 7:00, Jordan touches briefly on the “Jitterbug Waltz” melody without ever playing through it note-for-note. Just after this, Dolphy’s flute returns for a reprise of his opening solo. Some interesting stuff around 8:15, just flirting with the tune’s melody. At about 9:00, Dolphy and Byard play through the melody in unison and the sextet plays through the head again to close the tune. In this version, “Jitterbug Waltz” has really opened up as a platform for some great solos. Dolphy, in particular, seemed to like this tune – he also played this one as a bandleader.

Jumping forward another decade or so, Woody Shaw’s 1977 album Iron Men included a version of “Jitterbug Waltz” with Shaw on trumpet, along with Anthony Braxton on clarinet, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums. As with the Mingus-led version above, this version starts with a bass/piano introduction before the melody comes in. Here, the trumpet, clarinet, and piano play the melody together while McBee and Chambers lay the foundation. At about 1:20, Shaw takes the first solo on trumpet. Chambers’ drums underneath this solo are really pushing this solo nicely – he and McBee sound great together and the recording is excellent. At about 3:40, Shaw hands over the reins to Braxton for a clarinet solo. It’s a brief solo, and at 4:40 or so, Abrams takes a piano solo. This tune’s melody seems to always be present in these solos, even when the players are playing something pretty wild (say, at 5:20 or so in this piano solo). A bass solo from McBee starts at about 5:50, with minimal accompaniment from Abrams and Chambers. Just before 7:00, the tune’s head returns, again with the trumpet, clarinet, and piano playing the melody together as they take this through the head again to the finish. There’s a few brief notes from Shaw’s trumpet, then the tune ends. Another example of “Jitterbug Waltz” as a platform for some excellent, melodic soloing, now 35 years after it first appeared on 78 rpm record.

Returning to a solo piano rendition of “Jitterbug Waltz”, Stanley Cowell did this tune on his 1990 Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 5 album. Cowell plays this in a very Tatum-inspired fashion, with ascending left-hand lines underneath the melody line. Cowell plays some really amazing fast runs with his right hand throughout this version, ornamenting Fats Waller’s melody. Incredible, virtuosic stuff – listen to this at about 2:10 or so! Stanley Cowell! He’s sticking to the tune’s melody here, but doing just amazing things with the piano – again at 3:05 or so some amazing runs. Yikes, is Stanley Cowell underrated. When this calms down somewhat around 4:00 or so, it’s beautiful stuff, but there are some more crazy runs shortly afterward, around 4:20 or so. Wow, very highly recommended listening here. Unbelievable.

Chick Corea’s 2001 album Past, Present, & Futures included his piano trio version of “Jitterbug Waltz”. Corea is joined by Avishai Cohen on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums here. This version starts out with a solo piano introduction by Corea that just faintly hints at the “Jitterbug Waltz” melody until about 0:40, when Corea plays a nicely harmonized version of the melody and Cohen and Ballard join in, Ballard on brush snare. I’m not always the biggest fan of Chick Corea’s piano playing, personally, but this one is winning me over… excellent playing, anchored by Avishai Cohen’s steady bass and Ballard’s drums that give Corea plenty of room to run all over the keyboard. He comes up with lots of variations on the “Jitterbug Waltz” theme here, rarely playing the melody outright, but playing off of the tune’s theme. Just before 3:30, Cohen takes a bass solo, backed by some great comping from Corea as he plays some very high, melodic stuff on his bass. Very cool descending line just before 4:20 from Cohen… At about 4:45, Corea returns to take the lead, playing more variations on the tune’s theme. At 5:30 or so, Cohen reprises that descending line that he played at 4:15 or 4:20. An excellent piano trio version of this tune, great playing from everyone individually and great interaction among Corea, Cohen, and Ballard. Another very highly recommended version of this tune.

Anat Cohen does a great version of this tune, and included “Jitterbug Waltz” on her 2008 album Notes from the Village, with Jason Lindner on piano, Omer Avital on bass, and Daniel Freedman on drums. Cohen’s version of this tune starts with a nice opening riff from Lindner’s piano before her clarinet comes in for the melody. She has taken the descending melody and stretched the phrasing a little bit to give this a more “modern jazz” feel here… at about 1:30, this opens up for a clarinet solo from Cohen. Omer Avital’s bass sounds strong in here, locked in tightly with Freedman’s drums while Cohen soars on top of this, carried by Lindner’s comping. This is a fine solo from Cohen; I really love how she ends this at about 3:45, handing the reins to Jason Lindner for a piano solo. Lindner takes a great, patient solo, building along with Avital and Freedman to a climax at around 6:00, Freedman’s cymbals crashing over Lindner’s chords. This solo comes to a close around 6:25, leading to a bass solo from Omer Avital. Avital shows off his melodicism here, an excellent solo that ends as the band returns to the tune’s head, staying at a very high energy level here, spurred on by Daniel Freedman’s drums. Great stuff! Another version full of great improvisation, and Cohen’s arrangement of the tune’s head is just different enough to make it her own version. She has kept this tune in rotation in her live sets, too (at least as of 2009) – her New Year’s Eve set in 2009 (with the same lineup as on the album version, except Joe Martin instead of Omer Avital on bass) opens with this tune, as does her show on February 18, 2009 at the Small’s audio archive (with Gilad Hekselman, Joe Martin, and Obed Calvaire).

This could go on… there are many versions of this song out there (also worth checking for is Cécile McLorin Salvant’s recent version of this tune – she did it live on NPR’s Piano Jazz not long ago). Listening to this song evolve over the past 70 years or so is a great way to follow the evolution of jazz as a genre. The way this song is performed seems to be a pretty good way to take the temperature of jazz at that time. To my ears in 2013, the versions from Anat Cohen, Chick Corea, and Stanley Cowell are great modern interpretations of this tune. Here’s hoping that in 2083, this tune is continuing to change and evolve. Keep listening.

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